The cornerback group for the University of Wisconsin football team may be uniquely suited to the challenges of pandemic football this season.
The No. 16 Badgers prepare to host Illinois on Friday, Oct. 23, at Camp Randall Stadium with six cornerbacks returning who started games a year ago. With the risk of COVID-19 and the time infected players must miss, having depth has never been more important.
However, if the group can avoid the coronavirus and the injuries that nagged at a handful of its members last season, then defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard will have a diverse arsenal of players to deploy.
“I feel great about that group as a whole,” Leonhard told reporters earlier this month.
“It kind of always seemed like we’d get one guy back and somebody’d get hurt. It was shuffling the deck a little bit. I am a firm believer in letting those guys let it rip and play as hard as they can and giving them rest. So we’ll rotate a little bit more than some (teams) … we’ve kind of had to do a little bit more than we’d like, but out of necessity. This year, we’ll see. I think that suits us, because right now there’s so much unknown, you’re preparing so many guys.”
Faion Hicks, Caesar Williams, Rachad Wildgoose, Donte Burton, Deron Harrell and Semar Melvin all made their way into the starting lineup at least once last season. The trio of Hicks, Williams and Wildgoose emerged as the top of the group, especially with Wildgoose’s ability to play in the slot in UW’s nickel packages.
Still, the competition for roles at corner has been stiff, with players knowing they’re still likely to play a good number of snaps even if they aren’t starters.
“It’s very competitive. Coach Leonhard kind of challenged us this camp of showing up every day and kind of transitioning that to the season of showing up every game,” said Hicks, who started 12 games last year and tallied 32 total tackles.
“You can see not always worried so much about (the) play call at this point, it’s more how can we make a play? Everybody’s been there, everybody’s got game experience, we all know the plays, there’s nothing really new. So at this point, it’s just like who can make a play? How can I make that play?”
UW’s cornerbacks are focusing on creating turnovers this year after tallying two of the team’s 12 interceptions and causing one of the team’s 14 forced fumbles in 2019.
Williams, who led the team with 11 pass breakups last year, including two on back-to-back plays on the goal line against Minnesota’s Tyler Johnson that helped seal the crucial win for UW. He said creating turnovers is how he believes cornerbacks can separate themselves in the training camp competition.
“When the ball comes my way, just try to be a playmaker. Creating turnovers is one thing I live to do,” Williams said. “A pass breakup is cool and all, but they still have another down after that. So getting those pass breakups into interceptions, or even increasing that number of pass breakups as well as earning interceptions, that’s more so my next step.”
The Badgers’ corners will get to match up with some of the nation’s best receivers this season. Minnesota’s Rashod Bateman and Purdue’s Rondale Moore opted back into the season after declaring their intention to forgo the year and prepare for the NFL draft.
Bateman had six catches for 147 yards, including a 51-yard touchdown, last year against UW. Moore missed the 2019 game at Camp Randall due to injury, but tallied nine catches for 114 yards and two scores along with 27 rushing yards in UW’s triple-overtime win at Purdue in 2018.
Hicks said the group was happy that Bateman and Moore would be back for the Big Ten Conference’s truncated season this fall.
“You want to go against the best, the best players in the Big Ten,” he said. “That’s pretty much the whole point, showing what you can do for the next level. So when those guys opted back in, I was excited to get a chance to play against somebody that’s considered the best in the country.”
Depth and experience are consistent themes for UW’s defense, with eight starters and a bevy of key reserves back from a season ago. But Williams believes the corners can make a more consistent impact on the game.
“I think we’ve definitely taken a step forward. We always look to improve every day, every year, every month. I think we are gradually always inclining,” he said. “Having coach Leonhard as a coach, having the same guys back, the chemistry is there, the play-making is there. It’s just time to put it on film.”
Get to know the Badgers' 2021 recruiting class
JP Benzschawel, an offensive lineman out of Grafton, was the first recruit in the Badgers’ 2021 class, continuing the family tradition at UW.
Benzschawel’s brothers, Beau (2015-18) and Luke (2016-19) played offensive line and tight end, respectively, for the Badgers. His father, Scott (1983-87) and uncle Eric (1988-92) also played football for UW.
Benzschawel is one of the top-ranked offensive tackles in the country. A four-star recruit on 247sports, and ESPN, and a three-star on Rivals, Benzschawel is a top-200 recruit nationally by 247sports and ESPN.
Jackson Acker, a running back from Verona, committed to the Badgers soon after receiving an offer in June 2019.
UW was Acker’s first scholarship offer after his sophomore season, but he used it as momentum for a strong junior campaign at Verona High School. He was a first-team running back on the Wisconsin State Journal’s All-Area team, rushing for 929 yards and 11 touchdowns in eight games.
Acker is a three-star recruit according to 247sports, Rivals and ESPN.
Deacon Hill, a quarterback from Santa Barbara, Calif., committed to the Badgers in July 2019.
A 6-foot-4, 225-pound, pro-style prospect, Hill was part of wave of recruiting commitments for UW. Hill turned down offers from Kansas State and Nevada in favor of the Badgers.
Hill turned heads at an Elite 11 regional camp in California with his big arm and deep throws. He is the lone quarterback thus far in the 2021 class, and the 2020 class added just one in walk-on Daniel Wright.
Hill is listed as a three-star recruit by 247sports, Rivals and ESPN.
Loyal Crawford, a running back from Eau Claire, Wis., committed to the Badgers in August 2019.
A fast, shifty and explosive back, Crawford was limited to five games as a junior due to injury. Still, he tallied 671 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns in that span. He was one of the first freshmen to suit up for a varsity game at Eau Claire Memorial High School.
Crawford — listed at 6-foot and 190 pounds — is a three-star recruit per 247sports, Rivals and ESPN.
UW’s scholarship offer the first Division I offer Crawford had received, according to multiple outlets.
Riley Mahlman, an offensive lineman from Lakeville, Minn., committed to the Badgers after watching them defeat Michigan at Camp Randall Stadium in September 2019.
Mahlman is ranked as a four-star prospect by 247sports and ESPN, and a three-star by Rivals. He’s ranked as the top recruit in the state of Minnesota by 247sports and ESPN, and the No. 2 Minnesota product by Rivals. UW beat out Ohio State, Iowa, Minnesota, Michigan State, Florida and others for Mahlman.
With Mahlman and 2020 linebacker Kaden Johnson, the Badgers secured the top-ranked recruit out of Minnesota in consecutive years.
The 6-foot-7, 265-pound tackle also played tight end for Lakeville South High School.
Bryan Sanborn, an inside linebacker from Lake Zurich, Ill., committed to UW in December 2019.
Sanborn, the younger brother of Badgers inside linebacker Jack Sanborn, is a three-star recruit according to 247sports, Rivals and ESPN.
The 6-foot-2, 215-pound prospect had a handful of Power Five offers, including Iowa, Minnesota and Nebraska. Bryan’s late father, Paul, played football at Oregon.
Ayo Adebogun, a linebacker/defensive end hailing from Mequon, committed to the Badgers in December 2019.
The 6-foot-3, 205-pounder was a second-team all-state selection by the Wisconsin Associated Press as a junior, a season in which he tallied 16 sacks and 75 total tackles.
The Homestead High School product is a three-star recruit per 247sports, Rivals and ESPN.
Hunter Wohler, a safety out of Muskego, orally committed to UW just before Christmas 2019.
Rated by multiple recruiting sites as the best or second-best prospect in Wisconsin in his class, Wohler helped Muskego to an unbeaten record and a WIAA Division I state championship as a junior. Wohler had 122 total tackles and two interceptions as a junior, and he was named the state’s Associated Press' player of the year.
Wohler — listed at 6-foot-1 and 180 pounds — is rated as a four-star recruit by 247sports, Rivals, and ESPN. He’s ranked as the No. 298 overall prospect in the 2021 class by ESPN.
Jake Chaney, a linebacker out of Lehigh Acres, Fla., committed to the Badgers in March 2020.
The 6-foot, 200-pound prospect is a three-star recruit according to 247sports and Rivals.
He was the District 7A player of the year last season after recording 100 tackles as a junior. Jake Chaney’s father, James, is his coach at Lehigh Senior High School and played at Florida State from 1988-1991.
Chaney was the third linebacker and ninth overall recruit in the 2021 class.
Antwan Roberts announced in April that he’d be attending the University of Wisconsin.
The 6-foot-1, 189-pound back is a three-star recruit per Rivals and 247sports.
UW was the only Big Ten program to offer Roberts a scholarship. He was also considering offers from Cincinnati, Duke, Kentucky, Louisville, Memphis, Missouri and Vanderbilt. He also played defensive back for his high school, Pope John Paul II.
Jack Pugh, a tight end out of Hilliard, Ohio, announced his commitment to the Badgers in late May
Pugh — ranked a four-star recruit by 247Sports and ESPN, and a three-star prospect by rivals — is ranked in the top 12 of tight ends in his class. The 6-foot-5, 235-pound prospect had scholarship offers from more than 20 programs, including a majority of the Big Ten Conference schools.
Pugh has the prototypical size to play as an on-the-line tight end, but has also split out as a receiver often through his high school career. A standout basketball player, Pugh also showed explosiveness as a defensive end for Hilliard Bradley High School.
Peterson, a three-star outside linebacker/defensive end from Akron, Ohio, committed to UW on June 1, 2020.
He was one of the Badgers’ top targets on defense since the spring of 2019. He tallied 21 sacks in his junior season at Archbishop Hoban, and chose the Badgers over offers from Alabama, Michigan, West Virginia and more.
247Sports, Rivals and ESPN all rate Peterson — a 6-foot-3, 235-pounder — as a three-star prospect. He’s the first linebacker in the 2021 class.
Mike Jarvis, a 6-foot-5, 250-pound lineman out of Medford, N.J., announced his commitment to the Badgers on June 3, 2020.
A three-star prospect on 247Sports and a two-star per Rivals, Jarvis has potential to play as a defensive or offensive lineman, although he’s been primarily recruited for his ability on defense.
Jarvis picked UW over scholarship offers from Duke, Florida State, Indiana, Nebraska, Princeton, Rutgers and others.
Outside linebacker/defensive end TJ Bollers added to a hot recruiting streak for the Badgers when he committed in June 2020.
Rated a four-star recruit by 247Sports, ESPN and Rivals, Bollers held offers from the likes of Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Penn State and most of the Big Ten. He narrowed his choices to Alabama, California, Iowa State, Nebraska, Northwestern and UW before making his decision..
Bollers — listed at 6-foot-3 and 250 pounds — is ranked the 98th overall recruit in the country by Rivals, 147th by 247Sports and 200th by ESPN.
Hallman, a 6-foot cornerback out of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., tweeted his commitment to the Badgers in late June 2020.
Hallman, ranked a four-star prospect by Rivals and a three-star by 247Sports and ESPN, had offers from at least 16 Football Bowl Subdivision programs, including Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State, Miami, Florida and Florida State.
UW defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard was a key piece to Hallman choosing the Badgers. Hallman has said in multiple interviews that he and Leonhard spoke often and that Leonhard was the kind of coach he wanted to play for. Leonhard was also key in UW landing another 2021 prospect out of Florida, linebacker Jake Cheney.
Adding Hallman to the fold continues a strong South Florida connection to UW’s secondary — current Badgers’ defensive backs Faion Hicks, Semar Melvin and Rachard Wildgoose are all from that area.
Skyler Bell — a 6-foot-1, 185-pound prospect out of Watertown, Conn. — had upwards of 18 scholarship offers, including other Big Ten programs like Iowa, Rutgers, and Northwestern before deciding on UW.
Bell is the first receiver to join the class, announcing his commitment in August, but the Badgers are expecting to add more.
Bell is a three-star recruit per 247Sports, ESPN and Rivals.
UW won an intense recruiting battle for Rucci, whose older brother Hayden is a Badgers tight end. Rucci held offers from nearly every top program in the country, but had narrowed his list to Clemson, Michigan, Notre Dame, Penn State and UW before announcing in early September.
Rucci is a five-star prospect and the No. 16 overall recruit in the country per 247Sports, while Rivals tabs him No. 29 and ESPN ranks him 33rd; Rivals and ESPN list him as a four-star recruit.
The Lititz, Penn., product is listed at 6-foot-8 and 295 pounds, and his father, Todd, played at Penn State before a seven-year career in the NFL with the New England Patriots.
AL ASHFORD III
Al Ashford III was a surprise pick up for the Badgers when he committed in early September. Ashford III’s commitment came seemingly out of nowhere, as he didn’t publicly announce a scholarship offer from UW prior to choosing the school.
Ashford III is listed as a three-star recruit on both 247Sports and Rivals, and is the top-rated cornerback in Colorado per 247Sports. He’s listed at 6-foot-1 and 170 pounds.
Fond du Lac prospect Braelon Allen kicked off the Badgers' 2022 class with a bang when he committed in July 2020. But he reclassified to the 2021 class in September, giving the class its seventh four-star-or-better recruit in the 2021 class.
Allen — listed at 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds — has been recruited as a safety, the position he’s played for Fond Du Lac, but 247Sports now lists him as an inside linebacker. Per 247Sports’ composite rankings, Allen is the No. 6 inside linebacker in the 2021 class.
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